California Coastal Commission


5. The Concept of Adaptive Management

Alternative techniques for the management of wetland mitigation projects have been used in an attempt to increase overall success. Adaptive management is one such technique now being applied to wetland mitigation projects. Adaptive management can be defined as an iterative approach to managing ecosystems, where the methods of achieving the desired objectives are unknown or uncertain (Holling, 1978; Walters, 1986). In essence, adaptive management provides a formalized process for the interactive management of a wetland mitigation project. Such a process is useful for the following reasons:

In certain situations, use of the adaptive management process could prove beneficial to both the oversight agencies and the project applicant. For example, in mitigation projects where implementation is phased-in over a long period, there is greater potential for adverse situations due to incompatible construction methods, deviations from the master plan, or the compounding of small errors. Using an adaptive management strategy in this situation may increase the chances of overall success and could help prevent cost overruns.

It is important to distinguish between an adaptive management approach and perpetual maintenance of a project. Adaptive management is a process applied to a mitigation project to improve the outcome. Perpetual maintenance is a operation carried out as a remedy to a specific situation. For example, providing the target composition of native plants on a sustained basis in an area with an abundance of exotic plants could require constant vigilance to remove the invading exotic plants. This project would not be self-sustaining, but may be important enough to require a mechanism in perpetuity to ensure the desired composition of native plants.

The establishment of clear goals, objective, performance standards, and a well defined monitoring program are key to a successful adaptive management program. The initial establishment of the goals, objectives, and performance standards essentially follows the process described above (Section 4.2.2., page 11), although the performance standards may change as new information is gained. Monitoring in an adaptive management context focuses on early identification of undesirable trends and provides the guidance, through an experimental construct, necessary to determine the appropriate remedial action to reverse an undesirable situation or trend. The Sweetwater Marsh case study, below, provides an example where the adaptive management process has been successfully applied in this way.

Adaptive management may be appropriate in certain regulatory situations. In general, a regulatory agency uses its permitting authority to specify clearly defined actions or procedures that the project proponent must adhere to. Adaptive management, on the other hand, leaves open the possibility for subsequent changes to some of the terms and conditions of a permit. This possibility for change and the associated uncertainty require collaboration among the project proponent and resource and regulatory agencies to ensure the development of acceptable permit conditions. A clear understanding of the consequences and responsibilities of both the regulatory agencies and the project proponent is key to using adaptive management techniques in a regulatory situation. However, if used properly, adaptive management is one of many tools that can help increase the chances for successful mitigation.

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